Ten reasons why traditional teacher evaluation is failing our schools

Over the last 30 years, Bill Powell and Ochan Kusuma-Powell have worked with a large number of teachers and school leaders in over 50 countries worldwide.

Bill and Ochan believe that many, perhaps even most schools, are not reaching their potential to be places of collective learning, and that one of the greatest impediments to realising this vision is the deleterious effect of traditional systems of teacher evaluation. 

This post is an extract from their book Teacher Self-Supervision: Why teacher evaluation has failed and what we can do about it.

Let’s take a close look at what many schools have in place.

In traditional systems of teacher evaluation the leadership of the school develops or imports a series of published standards or expectations for high quality teaching and the supervisor then determines whether the individual teacher exceeds, meets or does not meet the standards.

The supervisor may employ classroom observations, review of lesson plans, conferencing, analysis of standardised test scores and acceptable yearly progress in order to reach a judgment on the teacher’s craft.

Teacher evaluations tend to be summative in the sense that they come at intervals at the end of a prescribed period of time and the external judgments are often coupled with rewards (eg oral and or written praise, promotion, and, in some cases, merit pay) or punishments (eg oral or written criticism, castigation, threats, withholding of incentive pay, and in a some cases contract non-renewal or even dismissal).

 Some Assumptions About Teacher Evaluation

Evaluation systems such as the one described above are present in most schools around the world. These systems are predicated on a number of assumptions and expectations.

Assumptions are important because we all have them and they exert a powerful influence on our behavior and decision-making. However, many – perhaps even most – of our assumptions reside beneath the surface of consciousness and are notoriously resistant to rigorous analysis and exploration.

Let’s look at some of the assumptions (we argue –faulty assumptions) that underlie the traditional practices of teacher evaluation.

Assumption 1: External evaluation provides constructive feedback that teachers use to improve the quality of their instruction and therefore enhance student learning.

Comment: The opposite would actually appear to be the case. Research and our own experience suggest that improved pedagogy results from shifts in thinking that are internal to the individual teacher rather than imposed from external sources. The distressing truth is that no one can compel learning in another person. The teacher cannot force a student to learn any more than a gardener can compel a seed to germinate. The gardener can create the conditions under which the seed is likely to grow. The teacher can create the conditions under which classroom learning is likely just as a principal can develop the environment in which adult learning is likely.

School people, teachers and administrators alike, have been conditioned to believe that they are not doing their job unless they are constantly providing external judgments, advice, recommendations and inferential suggestions. We, as a profession, have come to associate our identity with that of an evaluator or consultant. This is a very difficult mental model to break.

Perhaps one of the most pervasive faulty assumptions in education involves confusion between the implementation of strategies and the achievement of goals. For some administrators, teacher evaluation is often seen as a goal (something that needs to be accomplished – an end unto itself) when in fact it is only the implementation of a strategy. The goal is not teacher evaluation: the goal is enhanced student and teacher learning.

Assumption 2: Student learning can be reduced to a behavioural formula that can be implemented mechanically by the teacher in the classroom. There is one best way to teach and we can evaluate performance accordingly.

Comment: We will argue that the one thing that merits the greatest skepticism in education is dogma. There have been numerous misguided attempts to reduce teaching and learning to a simplistic formula. Glickman, Gordon, and Ross-Gordon (2003) write: “Effective teaching has been misunderstood and misapplied as a set and sequence of certain teaching behaviours (review previous day’s objectives, present objectives, explain, demonstrate, guided practice, check for understanding, etc. This explanation of effectiveness is simply untrue (p. 72).” People who think teaching can be reduced to a mechanistic recipe have never facilitated learning in a classroom.

Assumption 3: The methods of industry will work in education. Universal education by definition must be mass-produced and students are the raw material of an educational assembly line.

Comment: The “factory model” of education is still very much a reality in many schools. The student is perceived as the “raw material” and the teacher as the assembly line worker. Grouping is age graded and the day is punctuated by rigid schedules that are announced by cacophonous bells. The end product of this mass production is standardised test scores. Most enlightened corporations have abandoned the “factory model” of thinking. Schools need to follow suit.

Assumption 4: Trusting relationships are nice, but are not essential to high quality learning.

Comment: We will argue that all truly meaningful learning, what we refer to as transformational learning, takes place within relationships. Adults, like children, choose from whom they will learn. Most of us will choose to learn from people we have come to trust. Therefore, in our experience trust is a fundamental, non-negotiable element both within the classroom and within the broader school environment.

David Rock (2009) provides insight about how the human brain operates in social circumstances. He has developed the acronym: SCARF to represent the social needs of the brain – Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.

Traditional forms of teacher supervision are based upon hierarchical status. More powerful and more influential individuals evaluate the less powerful. Feedback that provides advice and solutions creates what Rock refers to as “status threats” because it enhances the status of the person providing the feedback and diminishes the status of the recipient. Teacher evaluation systems also serve to undermine teacher autonomy and any sense of social relatedness.

Humans are wired to be social (Rock, 2009, Lieberman, 2013). We have a basic and profound need to feel a sense of relatedness and belonging. Our social needs are just as basic as food, water, and shelter. Without psychological safety (not the same as psychological comfort) our health is threatened and our learning impaired. Traditional teacher evaluation damages trust and creates the conditions under which meaningful teacher learning is unlikely.

Assumption 5: Teachers will not become better at their craft unless externally coerced to do so by the use of extrinsic rewards and punishments.

Comment:   The implication here is that teachers are for the most part complacent and apathetic individuals who are not motivated by internal values and beliefs. In order get the extra mile or value-added, they need to be compelled, forced or manipulated into improvement. This is not the authors’ impression of the teaching profession.

Assumption 6: Teachers need a constant barrage of appreciation and validation.

Comment: This is an unfortunately common and often unexamined assumption in schools – many times perpetuated by teachers themselves and well-meaning administrators.   Teachers, like everyone else, need encouragement. But encouragement is not the same as praise. Encouragement is a self-renewing resource. Instead of having less of it when we use it wisely, we actually have more. Encouragement reminds us of the Hydra – not the venomous multiple headed serpent that Heracles kills in his Second Labor, but rather the simple microscopic fresh water creature that lives in ponds and weedy lakes. Like encouragement, the Hydra has mastered remarkable self-regenerating ability and does not appear to show the ravages of time, doesn’t atrophy and does not die of old age.  

But praise can be only an illusion of encouragement and its inflation in schools, whether directed at students or teachers can insidious and can be injurious to future learning. In a classic study, Mary Budd Rowe (1974) found that elementary students who were frequently praised by their teachers exhibited less perseverance than their peers.

Assumption 7: Supervisors know more about high quality teaching and learning than teachers do.

Comment: In our experience, this has not necessarily been the case.  

Assumption 8: It is reasonable to expect one principal to supervise forty or fifty teachers.

Comment: In no other work environment that we know of does the supervision ratio run as high as it does in schools. In most organisations, a supervisor has 5-8 direct reports. To expect a principal to meaningfully supervise forty teachers is folly.

Assumption 9: Accountability trumps responsibility.

Comment: While it may seem plausible to hold teachers accountable and require adherence to external standards, plausibility has been called the “opiate of the intellect”. It often stands in the way of deeper thinking. Accountability can be defined as compliance seeking and is counterproductive to learning.   Costa, Garmston and Zimmerman (2014) write that these “very acts corrupt the system. The overemphasis on compliance consumes valuable time, turns teachers into conforming consumers, and shifts the assessment paradigm further from meaningful authentic measures (2014 p. 91).

Accountability is external to self. We are accountable to others, usually individuals who have greater authority than we do. Traditional teacher evaluation systems are based upon the idea of status disparity. The greater authority performs the evaluation upon the lesser authority. Even well meaning advice can reinforce the perception of superior and inferior status. Rock (2008) writes: “In most people, the question ‘can I offer you some feedback’ generates a similar response to hearing fast footsteps behind you at night. Performance reviews often generate status threats, explaining why they are often ineffective in stimulating behavioural change (p.4).” External emphasis on accountability can lend itself to coercive cultures in which rewards and threats are the primary means of staff and student motivation.

Professional responsibility, on the other hand, is internal. It is all about being true to our values and beliefs. Responsibility is an essential element in self-direction. We share research on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and argue that schools, which are healthy human work communities, actively support the development of an internal sense of responsibility.

Assumptions 10: If you can’t measure and quantify something, it doesn’t exist – or if it does exist, it’s not very important.

 Comment: Here is a most unfortunate legacy from the dark ages of behaviourism: if something isn’t observable and measurable it doesn’t exist. The world according to B.F. Skinner is a rather simple, grim, manipulative place.

In the corporate sector there is an old adage: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” This assumption has nefariously slipped into education. The most important outcomes in education are manageable and observable, but are extremely difficult, nigh impossible to measure: integrity, perseverance in the face of adversity, courage of convictions, compassion, citizenship, empathy, honesty, enthusiasm for learning etc. As usual, Einstein got it right when he said: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten all that has been learned.”


Traditional Teacher Evaluation


Teacher Self-Supervision



Quality Control

Quality Enhancement

External Evaluation


External Judgmental Feedback

Rigorous self-reflection


Data Analysis/Interpretation

Meeting Standards

Setting Goals/Monitoring progress

Fixed Mindset

Growth Mindset

Search for Deficits

Search for Strengths

Praise and Criticism

Internal Motivation



Disparity of Power and Authority




Happens to you (other directed)

You make it happen (self-directed)



9781909717671-covIn tomorrow’s post, ‘Reclaiming our Profession: Five Domains of Teacher Self-Supervision’, Bill and Ochan suggest ways in which schools can foster a spirit of teacher self-supervision.

Click here for more information about Teacher Self-Supervision: Why teacher evaluation has failed and what we can do about it

Follow Bill and Ochan on Twitter via @BillOchanPowell or contact them on email  Bpowell@eduxfrontiers.org

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  1. peterabarnard

    SchoolsImprove Love this post…schools are burdened by assumption that only system thinking like this removes. I will remember my SCARF

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